There are a few places to stay and eat just north of Bocas town in “Saigon,” among the mangroves on the south side of the island, and in and around Boca del Drago .
The three-story, 118-room Playa Tortuga (tel. 302-5424 Panama City reservations, tel. 757-9050 at the hotel, www.hotelplayatortuga.com , starts at $182 s/d, including breakfast) didn’t end up as bad as some of us feared. Located just past the i griega (the turnoff to Boca del Drago ), it’s the first large-scale hotel in the Bocas del Toro  archipelago, and when it opened in 2008 it instantly doubled the number of hotel rooms on Isla Colón .
Owned by the same group that operates Country Inns and Suites in Panama , it has the feel of a motel and looms over its narrow strip of beach, which isn’t wide enough even to lay out a beach towel. Rooms have firm beds, mini-fridges, in-room safes, cable TV, free Wi-Fi, and balconies overlooking the sea. The rooms are clean and new but aging rapidly.
The hotel has a pool that’s not nearly as big as it looks on the hotel website, plus a kids’ pool, which makes the place popular with some families. The hotel also features two restaurants, a gym, music that’s pumped throughout the open common areas, and slow service. The hotel is north of town but the road is good, making it a fairly quick drive. There’s a free shuttle service into town three times a day.
The Spanish-owned Punta Caracol Acqua Lodge (tel. 6612-1088 or 6676-7186, www.puntacaracol.com , starts at US$400 s, US$460 d, including breakfast, dinner, and transfers) consists of nine bungalows built off the west side of Isla Colón , right on the calm waters of Almirante  Bay. Boardwalks link the bungalows to each other and to an attractive open-air restaurant where at night guests dine by the light of kerosene lanterns. That’s all that’s out there: The little resort feels as though it’s floating off by itself in the shallow sea. The place is run on solar power, and there’s a septic system (toilet paper must be disposed of in a trash can, not the toilet).
Its five Punta Caracol Suites are cheerful, spacious, two-story wooden bungalows with thatched roofs. Upstairs is a large master bedroom with mosquito nets over a king-sized bed. A window is cut into the thatch to give a view of the water, but it can get stuffy up there at night. Downstairs is a sitting room with a couch that converts into a bed. This leads onto a back terrace with a landing from which guests can go snorkeling or swimming right from their rooms. The clear, shallow sea is your backyard, and there’s nothing between you and the mainland mountains in the far distance.
Three newer bungalows, the Luna Suites (US$470 s, US$567 d) are similar to the other bungalows, but have larger terraces and bathing platforms, plus a hammock and hanging chair.
All eight bungalows can sleep up to four people, but the price goes up accordingly. There’s also a Master Suite that’s twice as big as the Punta Caracol Suites (US$490 s, US$619 d). It can accommodate up to six people, but again, there’s a substantial per-person charge.
Rates include breakfast, dinner, transfers to and from the airport, a welcome cocktail, snorkeling gear, and use of kayaks. Food can be delicious here, and a huge breakfast is served in the morning.
As striking as this place is, there are some things that may bother guests, especially given the amount they’re paying. The staff is casual, sometimes to the point of near rudeness. Guests have reported wildly different experiences of the food and service.
There’s a whiff of mangrove stench when the wind blows from shore. Despite the proximity of the mangroves, though, the chitras aren’t too bad. If you stay here, you really have to be in the mood for isolation without too much entertainment. Expenses accumulate quickly if you want to explore. It’s a long boat trip back to town, and the resort charges US$15–30 round-trip to ferry you.
Tours of the surrounding area range US$20–60 per person.
This is probably the most photographed hotel in Panama , because it was the first of its kind on the isthmus. That is partly why it can charge some of the steepest rates in Bocas, but similar experiences can now be had elsewhere for less.